Coming off a deeply unsatisfying tie game against the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals (3-3-1) will look to avenge last year's NFC Championship Game blowout in their return to the stadium where it happened.
The Cards will take on the surprisingly bad 1-5 Panthers, who are fresh off a bye week, beginning 10 a.m. Arizona time Sunday. The Cards were stomped 49-15 in Charlotte last season, ending their bid for their second-ever Super Bowl appearance.
Here are three questions and a prediction for their rematch.
1. Who's healthy?
The Cardinals have a number of health concerns on both sides of the ball heading into Sunday. Wide receivers Michael Floyd (hamstring) and John Brown (sickle cell trait) are both questionable to play vs. Carolina, which is an even bigger deal now that fellow wideout Jaron Brown will miss the rest of the season with an ACL tear. Also, No. 1 tight end Darren Fells has been ruled out with an ankle injury.
On defense, safety Tony Jefferson, who leads the Cardinals in tackles, is questionable, as he's been battling the flu this week. All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson is expected to play, though he's been dealing with bruised ribs and was clearly less than 100 percent last weekend vs. Seattle.
The ability (or inability) of any of these men to play -- and play effectively -- at Carolina is a major storyline to watch heading into Sunday's early kickoff.
2. Can the Cards contain Cam?
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton pretty much had his way with the Cardinals during last year's NFC title game, throwing for 335 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 47 yards and a pair of scores. But Newton's numbers have dipped this year -- his passer rating is just 81.2, on pace for the lowest of his NFL career, and he hasn't made quite as many plays with his feet.
Newton will also have to face a Cardinals defense with a much-improved pass rush, led by recently acquired linebacker Chandler Jones and 2015 second-round pick Markus Golden. The Cards have already recorded 20 sacks this season, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL, and they drew one holding penalty after another from Seattle's offensive line last week.
The Panthers boast one of the NFL's best offensive lines. Will the Cards be able to break through and get their hands on the elusive Newton, or will the former Heisman Trophy winner once again have his way with Arizona through the air and on the ground?
3. Will Palmer feast on the Panthers?
On the opposite side of the coin, Cards QB Carson Palmer had one of the worst games of his 14-year NFL career when he threw five interceptions in last season's NFC Championship Game. Those struggles have stayed with him throughout the 2016 season: Like Newton, his numbers have regressed significantly compared to 2015.
But this year, Palmer will face a depleted Panthers secondary missing Pro Bowler Josh Norman, who bolted for the Redskins before the season began. Carolina's 282 passing yards allowed per game, 13 passing TDs allowed and 100.8 opponent passer rating are all in the NFL's bottom 10.
Of course, Palmer could be missing several receivers Sunday, which could limit his ability to pick apart the Panthers' defense. But regardless, Palmer will need to make much better decisions Sunday than he did in Charlotte nine months ago if the Cards are going to improve to 4-3-1 heading into their bye week.
The Cardinals looked awful in their only other East Coast game this season, at Buffalo in Week 3. Arizona fell behind early as Palmer completed just one of his first nine passes, and the Cards made multiple mistakes on defense and special teams.
The Panthers aren't the same team they were last year, but they're fresh off a bye and will be playing at home facing a game they have to win if they want to make any kind of playoff push. Cards running back David Johnson is having an MVP-caliber season, but the Panthers have one of the NFL's best rushing defenses and should be able to at least contain the second-year pro, which would put the onus on Palmer to make some big throws.
If this game was in Glendale, I'd pick the Cards in a heartbeat. But Arizona is a hobbled bunch being forced to play early on the other side of the country against a well-rested, desperate team. Look for Newton to do just enough to add to the Cards' miseries.
Panthers 24, Cardinals 19